Until recently, I wasn’t aware that I was uptight. Genuinely, I had no idea.
Of course I knew that I was a perfectionist but, you know, what woman isn’t? Many of us wear our perfectionism like a shining badge of honour. In fact, I was so proud of my perfectionism that it was the characteristic I would cite in a job interview when my potential employer asked about my most conspicuous shortcoming. My thinking, of course, was that the interviewer would see me as the hardworking and committed person I am, that they would understand that I was willing to work as diligently and as long and as late and on as many weekends as were required to get the job done perfectly.
Not surprisingly, I almost always got the job.
We all know what a high price we pay for perfectionism. Every single one of us. We’re aware of the crazy glorification of busyness and the constant pull to live in the past (Ack! I wasn’t good enough) or in the future (Oh no! I’ll never be good enough)… any moment that is not right here and now. We’ve experienced the kind of deep-bone burnout that may lead to sadness and bitterness. We understand that we’ve been socialized to strive for perfection but the problem is that we’ve been living this way for so long that it’s almost impossible to believe that we can change… or that we’ll be allowed to.
Here’s the good news. Like everything else, the idea that we must be perfect in our various life roles is just a thought. A construct. Since it’s a thought that is not at all good for us, we can choose to:
1. NOT believe that thought
2. Develop a new thought in its place
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offered some advice to graduates of Wellesley during her commencement speech in 2015:
“Hire more women where there are few. But remember that a woman you hire doesn’t have to be exceptionally good. Like a majority of the men who get hired, she just needs to be good enough.”
What gorgeous, audacious words: “She just needs to be good enough.”
- My apartment needs only to be tidy enough. It does not need to look perfect in order to invite friends over.
- My facebook posts are fine the way they are. Editing is not required. I don’t need to be a professional photographer or a Pulitzer Prize winning writer to share happy bits of my life with my friends.
- My wardrobe is fine the way it is. I don’t need the clothing options of a socialite, a news anchor or a supermodel.
- The gifts that I give do not need to be perfectly wrapped. My kind heart is more than enough.
You get the idea. Of course, just-good-enoughness doesn’t stop us from striving for success in the parts of our lives that are really important to us… but they can’t all be REALLY IMPORTANT. What if we stopped living our lives as though every single thing we do is an Olympic event in which we are competing for a gold medal?
Just-good-enoughness is one of those concepts that a person may have to encounter many, many times before the idea is finally cleared for landing on our particular emotional airstrip. We must be patient with ourselves as this idea circles the skies above the tiny airport in our brains… but we must also instruct our ground crew to be ready and alert, prepared to talk the just-good-enoughness down out of the skies.
We must be ready to set ourselves free.
You’ve been wondering about the stick, haven’t you? I don’t need to get too graphic for you to know where that stick has been wedged.
Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about my own perfectionism and its shadow side. All things cast a shadow and I’ve begun to understand, with some help from a few wise people, that it’s not possible to be a perfectionist only with oneself. No perfectionist is an island and I have had some VERY HIGH standards for other people. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that I am absolutely convinced that white should never be worn after Labour Day. (Look, this is not my particular brand of crazy but I have many beloved friends who hold this belief.) So if this is a “rule” for me, not only will my own fashion-whimsy be restricted by this belief, but my friends are in danger of being held to the same (constructed and, I would argue, ridiculous) standard.
And if I push myself without stopping to consider my physical or emotional health, if I resist setting healthy boundaries with the difficult folks in my life, if I don’t routinely provide myself with time to play and reflect and dream, I may not be as compassionate with others as I truly want to be. I might just be too damned busy judging them. Keeping score.
My perfectionism (and yours) makes us way too focussed on outcomes rather than the process and the tricky bit here is that our days are spent, primarily, in the process part ~ the doing (of laundry) and the making (of lunches). We live smack-dab in the middle of the divine messiness of life.
When you are talking with a friend about a mutual friend’s need for a touch-up to her roots, you are not “sharing a concern”. You are not worried about her hair. Her hair is not sick, it’s just grey. And that’s not a character flaw on your friend’s part. Her grey roots are not a crime against humanity. In fact, a bit of grey does not even register as being inconsiderate towards others. So the thing you’ve got yourself into is a steaming pile of judgment and gossip. And although you may be tempted to say, “What’s the big deal? We’re just passing time… having a chat about our friend,” we all know that gossip is harmful. Somewhere, deep in our royal blood and bones, we’ve known this since childhood. Gossip is the cosmic equivalent of junk mail or spam. It’s the comments section of almost every online publication. It comes from a place of wanting more power and that impulse never fosters connection.
Another big reason you are gossiping/passing judgment on your friend’s roots is that you were raised to believe a woman should NEVER let her roots show. You’re being held prisoner by that thought, by that limiting belief, and you’ve locked your friend inside that tiny cell with you.
Maybe, like me, you are discovering that this is not a good way to live. Maybe, as you’ve grown older and witnessed the genuine suffering of your friends and family members, you are struck by how very much we all have in common and how the thing we need most is love.
Okay. Here we go…
Directions for Advanced Stick Removal for Perfectionists of All Ages
- Acknowledge that you are a perfectionist.
- Immediately cut yourself some slack. You’re in good company… and shame never made anything better.
- Start gently examining what you believe. Are you holding old beliefs about how to live, and who and how to love, and what success means ~ ideas taught to you by well-intentioned parents, grandparents and teachers? Are you holding onto values that no longer resonate with you… that are not guided by compassion and empathy?
- Now begin letting those things go ~ for yourself and for others. It will take some time and some practice. Keep breathing.
- Bonus: Ask yourself the question, “How do I want to feel?” Good. Now move in that direction.
- That stick is going to drop right out. I promise.
P.S. If you’d like to receive The Sunday Reader directly in your inbox every two weeks, you can subscribe here.